Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"
According to US neuroscientist Rhawn Joseph, one of the youngest parts of the brain, the inferior parietal lobe of the left hemisphere, enabled both language, tool making and art itself. It enabled us, in other words, to create visual symbols. It also enabled us to create verbal symbols, i.e. of writing.
The inferior parietal lobe allows the brain to classify and label things. This is the prerequisite to forming concepts and to “abstracting” in general. Surprisingly, this is also the same organ that enables meaningful manual gesturing (a universal language, that it is also shared with many animals). Thus the evolution of writing is somehow related (neurally speaking) to manual gesturing. The inferior parietal lobe was one of the last organs of the brain to evolve, and it is still one of the last organs to mature in the child (which explains why children have to wait for a few years before they can write and do math).
This lobe is much more developed in humans than in other animals (and non-existent in most). The neurons of this lobe are somewhat unique in that they are “multimodal”: they are capable of simultaneously processing different kinds of inputs (visual, auditory, movement, etc). They are also massively connected to the neocortex, precisely to three key regions for visual, auditory and somatosensory processing. Their structure and location makes them uniquely fit to handle and create multiple associations. It is probably this lobe that enables us to understand a word as both an image, a function, a name and many other things at the same time.
Joseph claims that the emotional aspect of speaking is the original one: the motivation to speak comes from the limbic system, the archaic part of the brain that deals with emotions, and that we share with other mammals. The limbic system embodies a universal language that we all understand, a primitive language made of calls and cries. Each species has its own, but within a species all members understand it. Joseph believes that at this stage the “vocal” hemisphere is the right one. Only later, after a few months, does the left hemisphere impose structure to the vocalizing and thus become dominant in language.
The US evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes that the human mind was largely molded by sexual selection and is therefore mainly a sexual ornament. Culture, in general, and language, in particular, are simply ways for males and females to play the game of sex. When language appeared, it quickly became a key tool in sexual selection, and therefore it evolved quickly.
Darwin had already speculated that language may have evolved through sexual selection(as a means to impress sexual mates). Miller agrees, finding that the usual explanation (that language helps a group trade key information) is only a small piece of the puzzle (individuals, unless they are relatives, have no motivation to share key information since they are supposed to compete).
Even more powerful is the evidence that comes from observing the behavior of today's humans: they compete to be heard, they compete to utter the most sensational sentences, they are dying to talk.
Miller also mentions anatomical evidence: what has evolved dramatically in the human brain is not the hearing apparatus but the speaking apparatus. Miller believes that language, whose intended or unintended effect is to deliver knowledge to competitors, must also have a selfish function, otherwise it would not have developed: individuals who simply delivered knowledge to competitors would not have survived. On the other hand, if language is a form of sexual display, then it makes sense that it evolved rapidly, just like any other organ (bull horns or peacock tails) that served that function. It is unique to humans the same way that the peacock’s tail is unique to peacocks. It is pointless to try and teach language to a chimpanzee the same way that it is pointless to expect a child to grow a colorful tail.
Back to the beginning of the chapter "The History of Language: Why We Speak" | Back to the index of all chapters